The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of A Kid Like Jake.
How did you end up bringing it to the screen?
Daniel Pearle: Jim Parsons read the play and he had just started his company, That’s Wonderful. He was looking for material, he liked the play, and wanted it to be a film. So we met to talk first, and he basically expressed his enthusiasm to be in the movie but also to act as a producer. So he optioned the play and hired me to write the adaptation. And so I wrote the first couple drafts and then Silas was brought on a year after that. We had a script that Silas and I collaborated on and the cast started coming together.
Silas Howard: I was brought on and I had some ideas for some changes, but I wanted to see how Daniel and I would work together. We worked fabulously.
DP: Silas had some really wonderful ideas and questions that helped shape the adaptation. He also had a lot of ideas that I was curious about in terms of how the film would look. It obviously influenced how I wanted to make certain choices so that I when writing the screenplay, we were seeing at the same movie. We were eerily in sync!
SH: Claire and Jim were already attached when I came on, and then our very first choice was Octavia. It just organically came together and it felt like such an incredible conversation, the whole team. Everybody was so invested and had a particular point of view in the project. So for me as a director that was just an embarrassment of riches.
“It’s very much about the adult’s interpretation of a child and their projections onto a child.”
As cast members, can you talk about the experience of working with such nuanced material?
Claire Danes: One of the most exciting elements of the project was just how wonderful the dialogue was and how rich the scenes were and how we were able to relate to another person for an extended period. You know there weren’t many diversions. We just got to be present with another person many times over. And that’s what I’m always most interested in as an actor.
Octavia Spencer: I second that. It was wonderful character development in that we actually got to sit down and actually have conversations in a way that was real. One of the reasons I was taken with the script besides the story itself was the really beautiful intimate scenes. We all had a chance to have intimate beautiful conversation and it was just two people talking about real issues and that I love that.
Why is the title character minimally visible on screen in the film?
DP: Silas and I obviously talked a lot about that. That was the biggest creative challenge. The play is just four characters and the fact that Jake is never seen is quite integral to the conceit of the play. It’s very much about the adult’s interpretation of a child and their projections onto a child. It was very much about the adults, but he’s obviously the nexus for this whole story. For the film we wanted want to make sure that he felt real, like a real character. I think not seeing him at all in the film would have felt a little bit forced and kind of creepy.
SH: Just to add to that, for myself as a trans person, I thought that at first it was counterintuitive to not show the gender. It became the most political decision on the film to actually not look at this four year old, five year old, and decide what this kid is. That’s not the conversation that we want to have. You know we want to really look at how the pressures of society play out and come into the homes of a family. And so for myself, as someone who’s trans and was gender nonconforming for most of my life, it really wasn’t so much about that, but about the ways that society puts pressures on all of us as early as childhood. But I think it was also important that our kid actor was really excited. You know he really loves dresses and he loves beautiful things as he says. That added a lot to the feel of his joy and innocence.
Can you talk some about the extra characters that you added to the film?
DP: One thing that was helpful creatively for me was the fact that in the play there’s four characters on stage, but there are several characters that are only mentioned. As a writer, you still kind of create them in your head even if you’re never going to see them. Obviously Jake is the biggest, most pivotal example. I think in my head they felt sort of like glimmers already. How do we open it up without feeling forced or inorganic and making sure that everyone who was in this film had a reason to be there? I didn’t just feel like, “it’s movie so it has to be bigger.” It was a lot of trial and error. So it definitely took some time but it was also a lot of fun to populate the world.
SH: We worked together on this. Whether it was talking to Priyanka about her character or the mom, Anne Dowd’s character, I felt like there was such a great opportunity. We’ve learned so much. I mean, I’m constantly in conversation with my family whether I know it or not. Just to be able to see the mom use every minute of her screen time was great. Every actor didn’t waste a second in terms of making a decision. And every character had some flaw in a good way. It was nice that it wasn’t going to be a “message movie.” I really wanted it to feel like a human story.
Can you talk a bit about how your experience in New York influenced the film?
DP: My day job since I moved to New York until very recently was tutoring at the high school level. That was at some public school gifted program, and that was how I kept myself afloat in grad school for the first six or seven years that I was writing. What I was privy to, especially with the private school Manhattan families, was the insane amount of pressure when it came to applying to college. What struck me was that all of the fundamental separation anxiety about seeing kids grow up was getting channeled into everything the parents felt they could control. Which were college essays and test prep and all that stuff. That was certainly one source of inspiration. I think that anytime parents are under pressure to do right by their kids you know it’s probably both hilarious and poignant. Their kids are about to leave and grow up. Because they sort of couldn’t deal with that, they would really freak out about all the stuff that they felt they could control. And so I think when I was doing research for the play, I realized, “oh god it happens at the kindergarten level, too.” That’s just so horrifying.
SH: I grew up pretty working class. I went to a lot of terrible schools that were not supportive of getting into colleges. The teachers weren’t supported to do the work that they could do. And also I could feel that pressure to conform, as a kid who didn’t. I was really interested in taking this idea and the messiness of it all. It’s hard in this country because if you don’t fit in a box, there’s just so much pressure. There’s not room for ambiguity. There’s a lot of pressure to do it the right way. What I love about this script is that there was a lot of fumbling and a lot of making mistakes to figure things out, to make more room for difference. Yeah it’s complicated. I think it’s easy to say, “I support this and I support that and I could post this and post that.” But I think it’s really a big ask when your kid is at risk, and as a kid who wasn’t gender conforming, I have a lot of compassion for this struggle. And as a society that actually still really shames, there’s a lot of risk to support your child to go out in the world and not fit in. I think this can be very painful. That was interesting to me.